Recently, China launched a series of ballistic (“aircraft-carrier killer”) missiles in the disputed South China Sea (SCS) region. The missile launching took place at a time when US-China tensions and confrontation in the strategic waterway reached a new height and a few months after the US’ latest rejection of China’s claims over maritime jurisdictions. Beijing’s claims in the SCS have been sweeping, encompassing nearly the entire region. At the same time, Beijing has enhanced its deployment of military forces in defense of its claims and the region’s strategic value. Still contested by other SCS claimant and non-claimant states, China’s aggressive and expansionistic policies have been reasonably successful in herding smaller and less militarily-endowed states closer together, though they remain more of a motley crew of “frenemies” than an anti-China coalition-in-the-making. US Defense officials reported that China had launched four (some sources noted two) medium-range ballistic missiles from China as a direct warning to the US. This incident followed closely behind China’s claim about a US U-2 spy plane having entered a “no-fly” zone as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) (now considered the world’s largest navy) warships were engaging in live-fire exercises in the Bohai Sea. The missiles were described as a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) known as a DF-26B – a weapon banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – and an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) known as a DF-21D, launched from Qinghai and Zhejiang, respectively.
China’s launching of live-fire missiles as patent warnings to other states are by no means new occurrences. China was suspected of firing DF-21Ds and DF-26s into the SCS, near the Spratly Islands, in 2019, signalling the first-ever firing of such missiles and progression of its overall militarization of the region and military action preparedness. Similar heated warnings and threats against neighboring states had been made over the course of previous years, reaching back to the early days of the Chinese “communist” state. Live-fire threats of this nature not only represent a tremendous danger and risk of further regional security destabilization, even the threat of active warfare with other states, they also bring an often-overlooked question to the fore: Does China’s aggressive and antagonistic behavior point to a dependence on external threats and the threat of war to maintain state cohesion? Of course, there is no existing method for predicting what option China will execute at any given moment. Unlike its regional rivals and overseas adversaries, China’s habitually exhibited unpredictable behavior has at times been self-damaging. This does not mean that China has an appetite for self-destructive behavior, but it does suggest, at least in part, that China seeks the protraction of an insecure environment around it. This presumption is in line with classic “state deformation” theories, which contend that states are more secure so long as they are surrounded by insecure environments.
One of the underlining assumptions of the insecure environment-secure states argument is that external threats bind and hold states together that would otherwise collapse. Another notable aspect of the argument is that state scope expansion is predominantly justified by war. The continuance of the state’s broad scope without active threats cultivating an insecure environment around it is improbable. Given this, it is necessary to highlight China’s broad and burgeoning state scope and the idea that states are always able to grow faster in times of war and heightened-potential conflict, or operating at a near-conflict point. In addition to this perspective, the belief that all states are created unequal and can have vastly divergent growth-development and expansion interests lends support to the claim that not all states are content with stable-equilibrium so long as it means that they are lesser than more powerful states.
Early articulation of the relationship between war and state, and the integrity of states as well as their reliance on threats, were made by Max Weber (1958, 1968), who argued that social life is composed primarily of two primordial components: power and struggle. For China, the struggle for power never ceased and the current regime finds itself in ongoing conflict and struggle with internal actors and agents and those immediately beyond state borders. War tends to play far less of a cohesive role for states that are formed, factoring into the cohesive imperatives of the states once state-establishment has been achieved. The Chinese regime may along this line of reasoning prefer to maintain a state of wartime-like threat and insecurity in order to legitimize, among other factors, its control over the state’s essential commodity resources such as its gross domestic product. Michael Desch (1996: 242-43) describes this as a condition in which, “[a] continuing external stimulus is critical to maintaining the cohesion of the state.”
China appears to have a comparably reduced position of privilege like that of the US during its 19th and 20th century periods of development and rise. Desch (1996: 248) notes that as the threat environment of the US became increasingly benevolent over time, its overall cohesion diminished considerably. Whereas the US had managed to remove the last remaining threat from its external threat environment by the mid-19th century, despite the emergence and persistence of internal threats, it is clear that China will never be able to erase all of its potential external threats from its external environment. This, in turn, means that China will always rely heavily on its vast military forces through either “coercive extraction” or “contractual mobilization” (Desch 1996: 244) to maintain internal cohesion and state unity. Though in other cases, states can turn away from the practice of cohesive or contractual mobilization by opting for “rely[ing] on external sources of military power such as allies.” This alternative to the strategy of internal methods does not befit China for two reasons: First, China’s present regime would risk delegitimizing its own authoritarian position and power by turning to external forces to buttress it’s state scope; second, the regime has maintained a poor track record when it comes to making and keeping external friends and allies.
The cumulative effects of its geographical position, strategic decisions in pursuing state scope, and recent historical trajectories offers illustrative evidence of several developments. Although China has immediately benefitted (and may continue to do so) from the maintenance of an external threat environment to the effect of China having become a powerful state in the contemporary system of states, its course has been deeply rooted in its heavy dependence on its own citizens, cyclically reinforcing the need to maintain an immense and intrusive and oppressive government apparatus. As part of the sequence, the regime’s scope of economic and societal intervention has been determined, and with it an overarching demand to sustain the external threats in its environment for the purpose of stimulating growth and conserving cohesion.
Desch (1996: 249) asserts that the Cold War served as the “‘perfect’ type of threat” with state-on-state active warfare never actually unfolding despite strands of proxy wars, but with the omnipresence of threat across the duration of the ideologically-driven conflict extreme or dangerous enough to act as a significant and fruitful “unifying factor.” Similarly, the perpetuation of threats and a system of threats within and across China’s external environment, to the extent that one can go beyond merely imagining the seedlings of a modern cold war involving China and the US, provides a comparable range of “unifying stimuli.” The regime in China has played a demonstrably purposive role in maintaining a state of ongoing “cold” conflict with Japan, preserving the image of Taiwan as a hostile and dangerous breakaway state that requires rehabilitative action (possibly through military force), reigniting land claims and conflict with India along its southern and south-western border, and cultivating a number of long-term persistent threats in the greater South China Sea region. Such a set of circumstances parallels that perfect type of threat that the Cold War engendered, states Desch (1996: 249), for justifying “an expansive and fairly cohesive state” although without the element of coercive mobilization that might be the tipping point for China internally by stimulating resistance or full insurrection against the state in a way that would bring it crashing down.
Less surprising is the fact that the regime in China has avoided the use of weapons that would result in destructive totality and a host of unpredictable outcomes (e.g., weapons of mass destruction, WMDs such as nuclear, and chemical, biological, and radiological weapons threats and attacks). Such action would almost certainly lead directly to the antithetical outcome of regime suicide in China. It has been alleged that the 2019 novel coronavirus that originated from the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in China, was the result of either a laboratory leak or intentional application by the regime – a claim vehemently supported by President Donald Trump. Although such a claim resides deep within the realm of conspiracy theory, the very basic premise of it can be distantly related to the concept of cultivating and preserving an external threat environment, the origins of which would remain shrouded or well protected by a lack of evidentiary data. While this remains a fundamentally unsubstantiated supposition and one the authors do not support, China has demonstrated a commitment to the use of functionally conventional options that simultaneously bring about the type of threat environment that is necessary for conservation in ways previously discussed as well as by serving as deterrents and having terror effects.
The live firing of ballistic missiles are ideal ways to achieve the desired result without ushering in the political consequences that exceed the direct and indirect advantages created for China (e.g., an all-out attack on China). Such actions, however, do possess their own unpredictability, notably in the form of escalatory imbalance or destructiveness. However, they have also become a state of quasi-normalcy within the regional and regime-state context and therefore appear to be even more so of service to China as a means of sustaining the, if not perfect type of threat environment, then at least an ideal one. In addition, the degree to which China has contributed to and plays a role in the creation of essential and extremely lucrative economic apparatuses and systems of trade offers much insulation from even remotely limited destructive responses from outside forces. Accordingly, it is important to maintain all of China’s actions and options in cautious perspective. While there are critical limits for the regime there are equally critical limits established or self-imposed in a sense to external actors’ responses to China. However, one might be inclined to contemplate the shifting of such limitations of time and their variation in severity given their geopolitical context.
The US and Western powers delineated tolerable action by extreme regimes such as Syria’s and overstepping the “red line,” which was presented as the use of chemical agents against Syrian civilians or foreign states and all other conventional and moderately acceptable or tolerable forms of violence and oppression. As the Assad-chemical weapons case illustrates, red lines established through sharp political discourse fade over time. Moreover, the contextual element exposes the prohibitive and facilitating character of ascribing identity to states by states in the international system. North Korea is often referred to as an “extreme regime” around which norms dictate travel, business, and economics. Whereas China is seldom referred to in public political discourse by its trading partners in like terms or through the use of such language that includes the words “dictatorship.”
 We loosely refer to China as a communist state, using quotations to bring attention to the considerable degree of subjectivity regarding the application of the communist label. Rather, we see the system as a communist-capitalist hybrid tailored to the specific political agenda of President Xi Jinping, a permutation of various political and philosophical elements that yield a state-managed capitalist (Xiist) system that has long-abandoned Marxist philosophy.
Weber, M. (1958). Three types of legitimate rule (Die drei reinen Typen der legitimen Herrschaft), Translated by Hans H. Gerth. Berkeley Publications in Society and Institutions, 4, 1–11.
Weber, M. (1968). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. New York, Bedminster Press.
Desch, M. C. (1996). Max Weber’s conception of the state. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 1, 71–105.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.